Reviews of River of the Gods by Candice Millard

River of the Gods

Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile

by Candice Millard

River of the Gods by Candice Millard X
River of the Gods by Candice Millard
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  • Published:
    May 2022, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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Book Summary

The harrowing story of one of the great feats of exploration of all time and its complicated legacy - from the New York Times bestselling author of River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic.

For millennia the location of the Nile River's headwaters was shrouded in mystery. In the 19th century, there was a frenzy of interest in ancient Egypt. At the same time, European powers sent off waves of explorations intended to map the unknown corners of the globe – and extend their colonial empires.

Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke were sent by the Royal Geographical Society to claim the prize for England. Burton spoke twenty-nine languages, and was a decorated soldier. He was also mercurial, subtle, and an iconoclastic atheist. Speke was a young aristocrat and Army officer determined to make his mark, passionate about hunting, Burton's opposite in temperament and beliefs.

From the start the two men clashed. They would endure tremendous hardships, illness, and constant setbacks. Two years in, deep in the African interior, Burton became too sick to press on, but Speke did, and claimed he found the source in a great lake that he christened Lake Victoria. When they returned to England, Speke rushed to take credit, disparaging Burton. Burton disputed his claim, and Speke launched another expedition to Africa to prove it. The two became venomous enemies, with the public siding with the more charismatic Burton, to Speke's great envy. The day before they were to publicly debate, Speke shot himself.

Yet there was a third man on both expeditions, his name obscured by imperial annals, whose exploits were even more extraordinary. This was Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who was enslaved and shipped from his home village in East Africa to India. When the man who purchased him died, he made his way into the local Sultan's army, and eventually traveled back to Africa, where he used his resourcefulness, linguistic prowess and raw courage to forge a living as a guide. Without Bombay and men like him, who led, carried, and protected the expedition, neither Englishman would have come close to the headwaters of the Nile, or perhaps even survived.

In River of the Gods Candice Millard has written another peerless story of courage and adventure, set against the backdrop of the race to exploit Africa by the colonial powers.

Chapter One
A Blaze of Light

Sitting on a thin carpet in his tiny, rented room in Suez, Egypt, in 1854, Richard Francis Burton calmly watched as five men cast critical eyes over his meager belongings. The men, whom he had just met on the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, "looked at my clothes, overhauled my medicine chest, and criticised my pistols," Burton wrote. "They sneered at my copper-cased watch." He knew that if they discovered the truth, that he was not Shaykh Abdullah, an Afghan-born Indian doctor and devout, lifelong Muslim but a thirty-two-year-old lieutenant in the army of the British East India Company, not only would his elaborately planned expedition be in grave danger, but so would his life. Burton, however, was not worried. Even when his new friends found his sextant, the most indispensable, and obviously Western, scientific instrument in his possession, he did not think that he had anything to fear. "This," he later wrote, "was a mistake."

Burton's...

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Millard spares no detail in describing Speke's slander, and the ruin of Burton's reputation at his former companion's hands is difficult to read, as is Speke's descent into a ceaseless rage that cost him his good name and may have contributed to his death. River of the Gods, much like Millard's previous books, is a story of courage and perseverance, but it's also a harsh look at the history of British exploration and the tragedy of pride and betrayal. Filled with stunning detail, fascinating individuals and important historical context, it's a true story that takes readers on a harrowing and unforgettable adventure...continued

Full Review (763 words).

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(Reviewed by Jordan Lynch).

Media Reviews

New York Times
River of the Gods is a lean, fast-paced account of the almost absurdly dangerous quest by those two friends turned enemies, Richard Burton and John Speke, to solve the geographic riddle of their era...Candice Millard has earned her legions of admirers. She is a graceful writer and a careful researcher, and she knows how to navigate a tangled tale.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Bestselling author Millard, a former writer and editor for National Geographic, offers a tense, vibrant history of several dramatic expeditions across East Africa that finally resulted in a successful discovery...An engrossing, sharply drawn adventure tale.

Library Journal (starred review)
It's been nearly six years since popular Millard published Hero of the Empire, and eager fans and armchair travelers will gladly sign up for this enthralling and heartbreaking adventure.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Bestseller Millard recounts one of the greatest 19th-century British colonial explorations in this fascinating history...Millard's lushly detailed adventure story keeps a steady eye on the racial power dynamics involved in this imperialist endeavor and brilliantly illuminates the characters of Burton, Speke, and Bombay. Readers will be riveted.

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Beyond the Book

Sidi Mubarak Bombay

Black and white photo of Sidi Mubarak BombayCandice Millard's River of the Gods recounts the harrowing expeditions of Richard Burton and John Speke, two British explorers sent to find the source of the Nile River. Burton's name was well known before these ventures, but Speke became famous for being the first to discover the Nile's headwaters, and both men subsequently gained infamy for their public feud following their journey. However, another man played an equally pivotal role in the success of this expedition — Sidi Mubarak Bombay. Because he was African, his efforts were downplayed, and his name went largely unknown until many years later. This is the case in much of British history: recognition has been focused on the expedition leaders while the locals who guided, fed, ...

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